Saturday, 3 December 2011

Some bushrangers, a double execution & a modern-day restaurant: Cleveland's addition to the haunted register

In late 1899, The Queenslander published a number of articles penned by Thomas Archer, underneath the collective title, "Recollections of a Rambling Life - Pioneering in Queensland."  Thomas, one of seven brothers collectively known as the Archer Brothers, played an amazing role in the early history of Queensland, as did his siblings.

Of the brothers, Charles escorted Ludwig Leichhardt to the family property at Durundur (current-day Woodford) in 1843, where the famous explorer resided for a number of months & became a lifetime family friend; William, along with brother Charles, were the first Europeans to discover the Fitzroy River (through Rockhampton), which they named after the New South Wales Governor Charles Augustus Fitzroy; David accompanied Charles Darwin on a kangaroo hunt, unsuccessfully, outside Wallerawang in the Blue Mountains in 1836 as part of Darwin's legendary world voyage;  Archibald became a member of the Queensland Legislative Assembly, & acted as Colonial Treasurer & Minister for Education; Colin went on to become a shipbuilder, constructing the vessel Fram in which Fridtjof Nansen undertook his famous Arctic expedition.  In amongst these achievements, this band of brothers were responsible for exploring & opening up vast areas of Queensland for grazing from the Darling Downs all the way to the Fitzroy - the brothers eventually settled in the Fitzroy region & established Gracemere Station in league with my great great grand uncle Robert Pacey, whose family went on to further their own amazing cattle empire in the region...part of this vast property is now the site of the current Queensland city of Rockhampton, & also gave name to the township of Gracemere beyond the city's limits.

In one of Thomas's articles in The Queenslander, he documents a fascinating story of early Australia, regarding a young man named Francis Edward Bigge whom he'd met whilst exploring the Stanthorpe area for viable grazing land.  In mid-1842, Francis & company had taken delivery of horses in the vicinity of Penrith in New South Wales, for delivery to Moreton Bay.  After suffering through 400km of harsh country & weather, the group of men successfully navigated their way to the vicinity of Tamworth on the 18th of August...however, their journey was about to take a colourful detour - suddenly, 3 men galloped into view, guns drawn, & demanded the party immediately dismount & disrobe.  Not one to be insulted in such a way, Francis emphatically refused & drew 2 pistols from his belt.  Outraged at Bigge's act of defiance, the bushrangers opened fire at close range, Francis returning fire in kind.  Miraculously, the bushrangers having expended their ammunition, Bigge managed to chase them off, taking possession of their abandoned horses & equipment.  However, the altercation came at a cost - during the melee, Bigge was shot through the shoulder which led to a 5 day stint in bed, & his clothing exhibited numerous bullet holes where he'd come within millimetres of further injury.

Ultimately, 2 of the 3 highwaymen, George Wilson & Thomas "Long Tom" Forrester, were arrested shortly after, Bigge having personally assisted in the manhunt - Wilson had arrived in the colony aboard the Moffatt on the 17th of August 1835, after having been sentenced to life at the Old Bailey in London.  However, on the 9th of February 1841, he had escaped from a chain gang & had joined up with Thomas Forrester - the two had taken to bushranging in northern New South Wales, & by the time of the altercation with Bigge had already had a £20 bounty placed on each of their heads by the Government.   At the Maitland Assizes on the 18th of March 1843, both prisoners registered a guilty plea, despite the Judge's repeated attempts to sway their decision, as a charge of "wounding with intent to murder" carried the death penalty.  After Bigge's deposition had been read, & both prisoners insisted they were guilty of the crime, the Judge had no other option but to sentence the pair to be hanged.  On the 25th of April 1843, both George & Thomas went to the gallows - it is said George stated that Mr. Bigge was surely the pluckiest man in the country & he did not mind swinging for such a man - as the newspaper of the day so poignantly reported, "The drop fell, and both were launched into eternity, for which they declared themselves prepared."

So, where's this week's ghost, you may ask?? Well, let's jump forward 10 years to 1852 & change location to Cleveland, just south of Brisbane, on the shores of Moreton Bay.  By this time, Francis Bigge had become a very wealthy landowner, businessman & elective member of the first New South Wales Legislative Council for the Pastoral Districts of Moreton, Wide Bay, Burnett & Maranoa.  Amongst other properties he owned in Cleveland, Francis purchased land in Paxton Street on which a brick building was constructed in 1853 to house workers for his various business interests nearby.  However, by the mid-1850's, Bigge's business interests at Cleveland were beginning to falter in favour of those in the rapidly expanding centre of Brisbane nearby, & the decision was made to downsize - the Paxton Street residence was rented to the Commissioner of Police for a courthouse & lock-up, & Francis took a sojourn to England in about 1856.  Whilst abroad, he married Elizabeth Ord in 1857, a devoutly religious woman & daughter of the Reverend Thomas Ord, before returning to Cleveland with his new bride in June 1858.  After a further 15 years spent in Cleveland, having accepted membership to the Queensland Legislative Council, Francis & Elizabeth returned again to England, where they saw out their days until both passed away in 1915 & 1914 respectively.

So, to our ghost - the courthouse was purchased as a private residence in 1882, & continued as such until it was converted to tea rooms in the 1960's.  In the late 1970's, a very ambitious project was undertaken by the owner to expand the property for use as a restaurant, for which the site has been utilised until the present day.  Best summed up on the Brisbane History website, "Stories of the Old Cleveland Courthouse Ghost (a middle-aged woman in a white gown, her dark hair gathered in two tight buns over her ears) have circulated for generations. No one knows for sure who she is, but most people believe it is Francis Bigge's wife, Elizabeth. The spectre is normally well behaved, content to amuse herself tapping staff and diners on the shoulder or blowing gently in their ears but she has been know to lose her temper on rare occasions, hurling items about the restaurant, switching lights on and off, fiddling with taps and causing valuable pictures to crash to the floor without, curiously, the glass in the frames ever breaking."  A quick look at The Courthouse Restaurant website provides more information, "Mrs Elizabeth Bigge is said to still wander the premises.  She died of hanging in England, but her spirit has returned to the place where she was the happiest.  There have been many sightings, as she seems to just co-exist peacefully, whilst keeping a watchful eye on the place when we are not here..."

So, what do we make of this??  There is clearly no doubt that the site has a resident ghost, although it is very debatable as to "who" is responsible for the haunting. What's more intriguing is the tale that Elizabeth Bigge "died from hanging" in England - it is highly dubious that a woman of such social status was hanged in 1914, nor is it likely that a devoutly religious daughter of a Reverend would take her own life by hanging (she would likely have been in her 80's at the time)...I would love to hear from anyone who can confirm the validity of this?  Ultimately, why Elizabeth's ghost would return to a building in Cleveland, after living abroad for 45 years, is anyone's guess...

However one very intriguing factor comes into play - for those who believe that spirits attach themselves to objects & places, the old courthouse houses something very special that may very well have given rise to the haunting.  During the 1977-78 renovations, suitable materials had to be sourced for the construction of the building extensions - amazingly, a fireplace fitted to the verandah extension was sourced from the sadly demolished Bellevue Hotel, a magnificent building that stood on the corner of George & Alice Streets & was a social hub for the elite in the Brisbane CBD.  Additionally, the main feature wall of the restaurant was constructed using brick & sandstone salvaged from the old Supreme Court Building in Brisbane after it had been gutted by fire - unfounded claims have been made about the haunted nature of the Supreme Court site recently, for the most ridiculous of reasons, however we'll be sure to examine the site's actual haunted history in a future article. Regardless, The Old Courthouse exhibits all the hallmarks of an ongoing haunting, & has every reason to do so given its colourful history...unfortunately, however, we may never know whose soul wanders amongst the tables during dinner service.


  1. There is no record of a judicial hanging of Elizabeth Bigge, and she is not listed on this website:

    There is the faint possibility that she may have hanged herself I suppose.

    I am curious about attributing identies to alleged ghosts. It seems to be common to say that this-or-that ghost must be this-or-that person, and this seems to be the basis for a lot of bullshit stories, where an apparently supernatural incident is subsequently padded out with some background tale. Do you know if there's anything about this haunting that makes them believe it is Elizabeth Bigge?

  2. When I say 'bullshit stories' I don't mean yours Liam!

  3. It's always intriguing to look at the evolution of ghost stories & the deceased persons each haunting is apparently attributed to with each generation of re-telling.

    The "Brisbane History" version matches the story as told to me back in the late 1990's, & to the best of my knowledge is the original version - no positive identification, but possibly Elizabeth Bigge (although back in the late 90's only the exploits of the ghost were seen, not the ghost itself). The "definitely Elizabeth Bigge who died by hanging" version on The Old Courthouse website is clearly the next evolution from the early to mid-2000's...

    Amusingly enough, a Courier Mail article was published in 2009 stating that, "resident ghost Elizabeth is said to haunt her former cellblock." This new evolution not only attributes the ghost to that of a prisoner held in the courthouse cellblocks, but also downgrades Elizabeth's status from wife of the original owner to criminal.

    Clearly, this is the perfect example of why oral accounts of history should never eclipse solid documentary research.

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